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How To Send Email To AOL Members

America Online - AOL - are the largest Internet Service Provider (ISP) in the world. And they are probably the most exotic ISP because they still do not fully support Internet standards. So, if you have many AOL members on your lists, it is worth adjusting your mailings.

AOL Email Message Format

A common myth is that AOL users cannot receive HTML emails. That is not true. Since AOL 6.0, which was released in October 2000, AOL mailer can interpret HTML. This means that you can send HTML emails to AOL just as you would send it to regular addresses.

AOL 6.0 had certain problems interpreting HTML. However, the quality of HTML interpretation has been constantly improving since then. AOL 8.0 even has a decent support for style sheets (CSS).

Sometimes, AOL users may have difficulty with the graphics inserted in the HTML messages - AOL may compress the graphics and corrupt it in the process. AOL users have an option to turn off the compression, which solves the problem, but some of them may have compression turned on.

AOL 5.0 (released in October 1999) does not understand HTML, but it does interpret some HTML tags inside text messages. Not many HTML tags are interpreted. It is important to know that the A tag is interpreted, which gives you an opportunity to insert links in your text message. For example, if you use the following text:

<A HREF="http://www.aysoft.com/">AY Software</A>

it will be displayed as

AY Software

This was intended as a quick fix for clickable links and simple text formatting, but it was carried forward for compatibility reasons, so newer AOL mail readers also interpret HTML tags inside plain text messages, just the same way as AOL 5.0 did. The latest at the moment AOL 8.0 is still doing this.

If you have a mix of AOL and non-AOL recipients, this poses a problem, because no other mail reader will interpret HTML tags inside text message. For example, if you want to insert a clickable link into your text message, most non-AOL mail readers do not need anything special, but AOL users will see a clickable link only if you put it into HTML A tag. So, if you want to please both groups, you need to send different messages.

Some bulk email software programs, such as AY Mail Professional Edition let you customize the text of the message depending on the destination. For example, in AY Mail you can write:

#/if(Email Address = *@aol.com)/#
<A HREF="http://www.aysoft.com/">AY Software</A>

This will alter the text of the message depending on the destination email address, so that all recipients will see a clickable link.

You cannot really tell how many of your AOL recipients have modern versions of AOL software. Even though AOL users can upgrade to latest versions, there's no guarantee that they do that. You can guess that most of them have the latest (AOL 8.0), however some of them may still be running AOL 5.0 or even earlier version. If your audience is not technically savvy, the percentage of people running older AOL version may be higher.

In short, you have three choices:

HTML messages. AOL users who have AOL 6.0 and later will have no problems with HTML messages. However, it is a good idea to carefully test it with different versions of AOL to make sure your HTML is interpreted properly, just as you would test it with Outlook, Netscape, Hotmail, Yahoo or other mail readers you're targeting. AOL 5.0 software will interpret your HTML messages as if they were text messages, and, since it looks for HTML tags in text messages, it will understand some of the HTML tags. Therefore, if your HTML is very simple, it may look fine in AOL 5.0. AOL 4.0 and earlier versions will display HTML code instead of formatted HTML.

Text messages. If you're looking for greater compatibility across mail readers, text messages are the best. However, AOL will not make links in text messages clickable. And you won't be able to insert pictures and track message openings.

Text messages with some HTML tags. This is AOL specific and shouldn't be used for any non-AOL recipients. So, you either need to send a separate messages to AOL and non-AOL recipients, or you need to use conditional text as explained above. AOL 5.0 and later versions will display these messages correctly.

Multipart/alternative messages (both text and HTML) are not a good option for AOL. They won't be displayed correctly with mail readers prior to AOL 7.0. Later versions will just display the HTML part.

AOL Filters

AOL filters are very aggressive. Harsh filters work on the server side. More filtering is added on the user computer. Everything that is suspicious gets filtered out. The destination users frequently do not suspect that their incoming emails is filtered.

The worst thing is that email message may be filtered out without any error indications, in which case it may be very hard to understand why the message is lost. Fortunately, it doesn't happen too often.

We suggest taking all possible measures:

Do not send direct. AOL will filter it out unless they think that email comes from a big SMTP server. You must send through a regular SMTP server. If you're unlucky, your whole ISP may be banned from AOL, in which case you won't be able to send to AOL at all.

Personalize all your messages. A message coming to several AOL users at a time may be filtered out.

Use your real return address. Emails coming from bogus email addresses won't come through. Besides, it is a good idea to always use your real address anyway.

Watch the contents. Avoid using multiple dollar signs, exclamation points, or words commonly used in spam. Suspicious contents may drive your message directly to junk mail folder.

Good luck in your mailings!

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